How should the Indonesian government, international community and UN respond to OPM’s Liberation Army demand?

Yamin Kogoya

The West Papua National Liberation Army, armed wing of the Free Papua Movement (OPM), released a video showing hostage, Philip Mathern, New Zealand pilot saying in what appears to be a calm, but trembling voice:  

I have been instructed to read the statement. No foreign pilots are permitted to work and fly in Papua, until Papua is independent. OPM requests the United Nations to mediate between Papua and Indonesia to work towards Papuan independence. OPM will realise me after Papua is independent.

Following the reading of the statement, Philip then sent his family the following message:

Thank you so much for your video message and for all your love and support from you and the rest of the family. It meant a great deal and I am grateful to receive them. I can’t thank you enough for being there with Maria and Jacob (wife and son), to help and support them. I have been really worrying about them and it’s great to know that you are there helping them. With that, can you please try to arrange any salary owed to be paid directly to Maria so that they have money for food and bills and if you are there, can you please use my Mac so if there are any family emails you can respond to them. It seems that this could go on for a long time. Maria and Jacob, I love you and I miss both of you very, very much. I miss both of you every day but try not worry about me. I am being taken care off as well as can be expected given the situation. They always give me enough food and water; they provided some warm clothes for me, and any medicine as required due to my lack of conditioning for the long walks we take. The rest of my New Zealand families, I love you very much too, please try not worry too much about me, please also be patient and strong. I hope we all can be together very soon. Lots of kisses and hugs and I look forward when we can be together.

The tragedy began on February 7, 2023, when Egianus Kogoya and his West Papua National Liberation Army attacked and destroyed a small plane and kidnapped its Susi Air New Zealand pilot Captain Philip Mark Mehrtens in a village of Paro, Nduga Regency of Papua’s highland. This incident opened the doors to an unending war whose roots can be traced to international mismanagement by the Dutch, the UN, USA, and Indonesia in the 1960s.

Egianus Kogoya

Some have condemned the hostage taking as evil terrorism, while others see it as a stratagem used by OPM fighters to further their liberation cause. Mainstream media in Indonesia portray the story as an armed criminal group, while others are indecisive or sympathetic.

Daily Mail Australia illustrates this conflicting view of the tragedy with the following headline:

‘Heavily armed kidnapper pictured with New Zealand pilot is a ‘psychopath’ terrorist whose rebel group carried out horrifying massacre of 31 in lawless region of West Papua’.

Daily Mail Australia omits revealing the identity of many ‘sociopath’ terrorists within the UN, along with the treacherous Dutch, US, and other forces who created this lawless region that led to the murder of more than 500,000 Papuans and those 31.

Despite Indonesia’s controlled media categorising the OPM hostage takers as an armed criminal group, international media coverage (Aljazeera, BBC, ABC, CNN, Reuters, Guardian, Washington Post and others) chose to use the rebel group’s name instead, the ‘West Papua National Liberation Army of the Free West Papua Movement’ as preferred by most Papuans in standing for independence.

Historically, West Papua has been dissected, renamed, and redefined by foreign powers for all kinds of purpose by making it simply an outpost of foreign imperialism on the periphery where plentiful resources are exploited and scrounged. Papuans are being mutilated at all levels due to this, therefore, whatever names and images depicted in international media are important for Papuans as Jakarta has consistently branded Papuans who opposed its rule as terrorists and criminals to justify wars since the 1960’s.

After more than a month since the kidnapping, Jakarta has refused to listen to OPM’s demands and has also refused to seek international assistance as a condition for the release stated by OPM’s army.

Everyone involved in this ordeal has high demands, positions, and interests. The kidnapped pilot’s safe return to his family and friends is of the utmost importance. For Egianus and his OPM army, it is the independence of Papua, for Jakarta it is territorial integrity, and the international community and United Nations may be concerned about world peace and security, and for ordinary Papuans and Indonesians living in West Papua, it is the impact of these conflicts.

In fact, since the kidnapping, there have been already many tragedies, displacements, shootings, killings, and beheadings in the highlands of Papua.

A report by Benny Wenda, leader of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, has stated that since the kidnapping, the Indonesian military has murdered and mutilated a 35-year-old woman in Puncak Regency, and villagers’ homes and churches have been emptied as thousands of soldiers have been deployed. Ms Tarina Murib was found murdered by residents on March 4th. Her head was missing, and she was naked. During the military raid, several civilians were shot, including a baby. One-year-old Aniton Kulua was shot in the head, and his mother Daisina Alom was shot in the shoulder.

This incident in Puncak Regency occurred in the aftermath from the massacre of ten Indigenous Papuan civilians in Wamena by Indonesian security forces and police officers. In response, Papuans in Wamena burned Indonesian-owned shops, forcing their owners to flee. A student from Indonesia named Viktor Hadi Sampa was shot and killed last Wednesday in Dekai District, Yahukimo Regency, Papua. Victor’s body was taken to Lembang Maiting, North Toraja, South Sulawesi. Families of the victims hope the government will immediately resolve the conflict in Papua to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future. Indonesian government accused Egianus Kogoya of ordering his troops to murder him. Verifying these killings independently is, however, almost impossible since all parties involved are engaged in a deadly game of blaming and counter-blaming in an environment where foreign journalists are prohibited from participating in impartial reporting.

To help prevent further bloodshed, Papuan religious leaders, including Benny Wenda, have sought to secure the release of the pilot. So far, the OPM liberation army has refused to negotiate with Indonesian or Papuan negotiators and have threatened to shoot them if they enter their hostage-held territory.

In a recent video, released by the liberation army led by Kogoya, three points were outlined: No foreign pilots are allowed to work and fly in Papua until Papua is free; I (the pilot) requested UN mediation between Papua and Indonesia for West Papua’s independence and West Papua National Liberation Army will release me (the pilot) after Papua is free. The kidnapped pilot then warns the world and his family that the crisis may last for some time.

If the hostage was taken in exchange for food, drinks, and money, it could be negotiated easily, like the recent released hostage crisis in Papua New Guinea. However, West Papua’s hostage situation is difficult to resolve since it has to do with ideology and not food or drink, as Kogoya has stated.

On the OPM’s side, the demand is the highest, and Jakarta is unlikely to even consider it given their own situation. Losing West Papua would be like losing Indonesia itself, it could be the end of Indonesia as we know it, as it was for Yugoslavia’s collapse in the 1980s.

For Papuans, their existence under Indonesian rule has a bleak future due to factors like high levels of conflict and violence, mass migration, high maternal and child mortality rates (poor health services), threats of deforestation caused by investment and exploitation of natural resources, a lack of political participation, and poor governance.

A recent study conducted by the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, Markus Haluk, stated that Indigenous Papuans make up a very small minority of the total population of Indonesia. Voter data calculations in the 2014 general election show, Indigenous Papuans numbered 1.6 million people, out of Papua Province’s 4.30 million and West Papua’s 1.13 million, making it a total of 5.43 million. Thus, Indigenous Papuans constitute 29% of the total population of Papua and West Papua or 0.58% of Indonesia’s total population of 275.36 million.

Given this situation, the future of the Papuan people under Indonesian settler colonial rule, if not resolved soon, will be the same as that of the original Australians, New Zealanders, Americans, and Canadians whose land have been completely expropriated by foreign settlers.  

At the outset, Jakarta’s controversial policies, including the special autonomy law that came about in 2001, seemed promising for Papuans.  But Papuans have consistently opposed them for years because they are empty promises and only fill coffins with dead Papuans. It is reminiscent of a Trojan horse strategy used to conquer West Papua and defeat the Papuans.

Despite of the distrustful nature of the Papuans state of affairs, Jakarta continues to beat the drum of development and prosperity while sending thousands of Papuan rebellious witch hunters on this frontier war. Papuans view Indonesia as an illegal foreign colonial occupier, while Indonesians see themselves as legitimate rulers. This contested terrain of justice, legitimacy, right and wrong has yielded these endless tragedies that, if continued, will see Papuans eliminated from their own land.

The New Zealand pilot is being held hostage against a backdrop of these dark realities that loom over Papuans. The key question is, who will be the negotiators for his release? OPM have rejected any attempt by Indonesians or Papuans to force his release without UN or international mediation. New Zealand government has offered for help with his release, but Jakarta has rejected this offer. Army Commander, Yudo Margono rejected an offer of help from New Zealand stating he was still able to free Philip.

As Jakarta deems this an internal matter and psychology, if the offer is accepted, it may be perceived as incompetent and weak. Further, seeking international assistance to deal with West Papua’s issues, particularly dealing with a group Jakarta deems criminal or terrorist, such as OPM, will demoralise Indonesia and undermine everything Jakarta has tried to prevent over the past 60 years – that is, preventing Papua from becoming an unresolved international issue.

Although Jakarta has sought to propound West Papua’s issue as Indonesia’s internal sovereign issue, it seems reluctant to admit that ‘chickens come home to roost,’ meaning that West Papua’s sovereignty under Indonesia remains an unresolved international issue. West Papuan conflicts of any type will always become internationalised as the Papuans themselves become more aware of historical errors involving international actors that led to the current situation.

A firm position taken by West Papua National Liberation Army indicates that they will not remain silent as Indonesians threaten to eradicate the Papuans, while the UN, the US, the Netherlands, and any other country involved in this tragedy remain silent and urge Australia and New Zealand to sever military ties with Indonesia.

Sebby Sambon, the spokesperson for the liberation army responded, why take the path of taking a hostage? Sambon replied: We have already said it. Let’s sit at a negotiating table and discuss Papua’s issue. That’s all. The UN failed to implement the rights of Papuans for self-determination. The UN was involved and failed. They handed over the Papuans to Indonesia like animals. Because of this, Indonesia has killed us for 60 years; killing more than a million people.

Reuters describes this emerging consciousness among OPM fighters by quoting Deka Anwar, founder of the Jakarta-based think tank the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC): ‘What we are seeing is younger, new leadership among local rebel groups that is more aggressive and not necessarily strategic in the long term.’

Anwar alluded to the lack of a long-term strategy, yet nothing Jakarta proposed in the past has worked in resolving this conflict, and nothing else will until this root cause is addressed, because Papuan nationalism is fuelled by historical injustice as stated by Sambon.

In his seminal paper, Self-Determination Abandoned: The Road to the New York Agreement on West New’ David Webster, concluded:Any prospect of lasting peace will need to include an honest re-examination of the period in which self-determination was abandoned, the two years leading up to the 1962 New York Agreement. To be fully effective, reconsideration needs to take place not only in Jakarta and Papua, but also in Washington DC, where self-determination evaporated in the interests of US Cold War realpolitik”.

The political identity, status, and sovereignty of the Papuan people as a nation state remains shrouded in mystery or stranded in the UN system, much like an overdue unsolved murder case. With their tragic method of kidnapping an innocent civilian Kiwi pilot, the OPM fighters set out to solve the cold murder case that has been hidden somewhere deep within Jakarta, New York, Dengue or Washington, and urge the UN to take responsibility and solve it.

The question is, will the UN intervene to solve it by freeing the two hostages held captive in West Papua, one (Phillip) by OPM’s Liberation Army, and the other (West Papua’s sovereignty) by the Indonesian Government. West Papua National Liberation Army warned that one cannot be freed without the other?

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